Mexico once was a place filled with languages.

Pockets of indigenous groups had their own dialects, preserving the culture and language of past generations.

But those languages are dying.

Sixty-four of Mexico's 364 Indian dialects are at "high risk" of dying out, with less than 100 speakers of each remaining, the head of the country's National Institute of Indian Languages said Tuesday.

Institute head Javier Lopez Sanchez said that in many cases, speakers of dying dialects are dispersed and no longer live in a single community.

Lopez Sanchez said many parents aren't passing their languages on to their children, and in communities in Mexico's north, Indian children may have a passive understanding of their parent's language but are unwilling or unable to speak it.

"There are entire communities where the children don't speak their Indian language," he said. As an example, he noted that among the Yoremes in Sonora state, the remaining speakers are all older than 40.

Many of the endangered dialects are in Baja California, and some are in southern Mexico.

Mexico has 68 Indian languages, but there are 364 distinct dialects, which are versions of a language that have significant differences.

Expert Francisco Barriga said that even Yucatec Maya is having trouble despite being Mexico's second-largest largest Indian language group, with about 800,000 speakers.

Yucatec Maya is the largest contiguous language group, meaning it is present throughout the hundreds of square miles of the Yucatan peninsula. Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, is the most widely spoken Indian language in Mexico, with about 1.5 million speakers, but it is highly fragmented geographically and its different dialects are sometimes not mutually understandable.

Barriga said one problem undermining Indian languages is that media and Internet favor Spanish, Mexico's dominant national language.

"Children ... turn on the television, go to school, they try to integrate themselves, and Spanish is omni-present," Barriga said. "The key issue is to make Indian languages present in the media."

Some small experiments in that have been tried in Mexico. Voter education ads have run on television in Indian languages, and some attempts have been made to broadcast the games of baseball or soccer teams from heavily Indian states in their native languages.

Barriga also noted that some Indian rock groups have sprung up. "They play well. They're good bands."

In a bid to give Indian languages more visibility, Google has teamed up with some Mexican government agencies like Barriga's National Institute of Anthropology and History to offer the Endangered Languages Project, which was launched in June.

It is a platform on which Indians themselves can upload material like texts, videos and audios of their languages, and interested people can look for information.

But, paradoxically, the Google platform requires users to have the latest version of web browsers, something not universally available to Indian communities, and it won't run on Internet Explorer versions of 7 or below.

Overall, communities often have a complicated relationship with their native languages: internally, they retain cachet, but outside, they’re looked down upon.

This situation is more familiar than it sounds, says Juan Bueno Holle, of the University of Chicago. It even happens in the United States, he said.

“There’s a certain prestige of how well you speak southern English when you’re in the south,” he says, and yet in the broader world, southern or African-American dialects or slang often face judgment and mockery.

Bueno Holle says “the same phenomenon happens” where he works in Juchitán, Mexico, home to the Isthmus Zapotec language. Despite facing prejudice, speakers are very proud of their native tongue.

“There are definitely other circles where it’s very prestigious to speak, and to speak it well, and not mix Spanish,” he says, adding on later “Everyone that I’ve been in touch with has been very eager to share.”

Ruth Samuelson contributed to this report.

Follow us on
Like us at